Dangerous Liaisons

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On Friday night I went to see Queensland Ballet’s performance of Dangerous Liaisons at our local Empire Theatre as part of their regional tour for 2019. If you have read the book by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1782, or seen the 1988 screen version starring Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer, then you may remember that it is a scandalous tale of seduction, revenge and betrayal set in pre-revolutionary France. The blurb on the back of my penguin edition says…

“Depicting decadence and moral corruption in pre-revolutionary France, Dangerous Liaisons is one of the most scandalous and controversial novels in European literature. Two aristocrats embark on a sophisticated game of seduction and manipulation to bring amusement to their jaded existences. As their intrigues become more duplicitous and they find their human pawns responding in ways they could not have predicted, the consequences prove to be more serious, and deadly, than Merteuil and Valmont could have guessed.”

I read the book a few years ago, as it is listed on the 1001 List – 1001 Books to Read Before You Die – but I haven’t seen the movie. Classic books are not always an easy read for contemporary readers, especially when they are written in an epistolary form, that is, as a series of letters, which is the case for Dangerous Liaisons. It can also be a bit tricky keeping the various characters with their french names clearly sorted out in your head as you read. Some readers find the story deliciously wicked and others have lauded the way it delves into the dark side of humanity. I don’t quite remember my initial reaction which probably means that I need to read it again. It may be one of those books that gets better with each read.

“a classic tale of seduction and betrayal”

Dangerous Liaisons has been adapted a number of times for stage, opera, ballet and screen, but this particular version by Queensland Ballet was a world premiere when it opened in Brisbane in March of this year. It was promoted variously as a “classic tale of seduction and betrayal”, “a hedonistic tale of love, virtue and humanity” and an “evocative and vivid work that will scintillate audiences” (QLD Ballet). It was also stressed that it was a production for a mature audience. Well, they got that right. It was the raunchiest ballet that I have ever seen. 

Now I did know the story, and I did expect it to be somewhat risqué. But hey, it’s ballet. How provocative could it be?

It was an incredible performance. The period costumes were fantastic. The music fitted perfectly. It was brilliantly executed and the emotion portrayed by the dancers was outstanding. It was also provocative because it clearly depicted the licentious and morally corrupt behaviour of the french aristocracy. Some reviews, that I read post-performance, described the production as brave and sensual, some noted the literal depictions of libertine behaviour, while one likened it to a strip club.  

I think it is the story itself that sits uncomfortably and causes a sense of disquiet. It is not the licentious behaviour of the french aristocracy so much, who obviously had way too much time on their hands and seemed determined to have sex with anybody and everybody. I do hasten to add that it was not all members of the aristocracy who were so inclined. No, it is the deliberate seduction and corruption of a young, naive, virginal girl for the sordid amusement and vengeance of of the two central villains, without a single thought or care for the consequences. Remember, this is the 18th century and there is a clear double standard when it comes to sex and morality. In the wake of the “Me Too” movement and regular reporting of revenge porn, domestic violence, sexual assault and catfishing, it is this part of the story that causes discomfit.  Perhaps discomfit is not what we expect from ballet. Perhaps we expect Swan Lake: beautiful, graceful, romantic, tragic.

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Art has many different purposes. It entertains us. It educates. It challenges. I like to read books that I know will challenge and expand my horizons. I go to see some movies for the same reason. One of the most memorable films for me was “Cry Freedom” (1987).  Set in South Africa during  the late 1970s, it depicted the reality of apartheid. One of the things that was particularly memorable for me came when the audience exited the cinema –  in absolute silence. We were shocked, stunned, appalled by what we had seen. Challenged. So, if we can expect to be challenged by literature and by film, why not ballet?

If you explore the Queensland Ballet website, you will see their motto – Move Boldly. 

If you read their vision statement this is what you will see…

“Our dream and our endeavour is to connect people and dance across Queensland through a program of delightful, exciting and challenging work, collaborating with leading artists and organisations.”

I did find Dangerous Liaisons somewhat challenging. It reminds us that the oppression, degradation and humiliation of women has a very very long history. It shows us the depths to which humanity so often descends. It provokes deep thought and reflection about the way women continue to be treated, the double standards that are still applied today and the very important role that art plays in culture and society. 

I am glad that Queensland Ballet is a company that seeks to challenge as well as entertain. I appreciate their goal to bring ballet to those of us who live out in the regions and I hope they will continue to stage challenging works in the future.

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